Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE HORNED GREBE.
PODICEPS CORNUTUS, Linn.
PLATE CCCCLXXXI.--MALE AND YOUNG.
The period at which this little Grebe makes its first appearance, after the
breeding season, on the waters of the Western States, such as the Ohio, the
Mississippi, and their numerous tributaries, is the beginning of October, when I
have seen them arriving and passing onward on wing at a considerable height in
the air, following the course of the streams. The generally received idea that
birds of this genus perform their migrations on the water, is extremely absurd.
I have already offered some remarks on this subject, but as too much cannot be
said, when an erroneous notion extensively adopted has to be disproved, I here
repeat that I have seen flocks of Grebes on wing and migrating high in the air,
apparently with as much ease as many longer-winged birds, and with considerable
Towards evening, on the 14th of October, 1820, I was floating in a small
boat on the Ohio. The weather was perfectly calm, and I was startled by a
whistling sound over head, resembling that of a Hawk stooping on its prey, when,
on looking up, I saw a flock of Grebes, about thirty in number, gliding towards
the water as if about to alight within a quarter of a mile from me. In a few
minutes they had come within a few yards of the surface of the water, when
suddenly checking their speed, they pursued their course until out of sight; but
in a short time I saw them returning towards me, and in less than a minute they
all passed at a distance of forty or fifty yards, took a round and alighted
pell-mell. The next moment, they were all engaged in washing and trimming
themselves, in the manner of Ducks, Cormorants, and other aquatic birds. As I
rowed towards them, they scarcely took notice of me, so that they were easily
approached; and finding a number of them close together, I fired and killed
four. The rest paddled off for some yards, rose on wing, and flew down the
stream in a pretty close body, looking as if not disposed to settle again for
some time. On picking up the dead birds, I found them to be of the present
species, three being young, the other an adult with the winter plumage beginning
to appear. Here I may remark, that Grebes in general do not moult so early as
most other birds after they have young; thus the Crested Grebe often passes to
the south in September, with its head still adorned with a large portion of the
feathers of its spring and summer tippet. While residing at different places on
the Ohio, I have many times witnessed the passage of the Horned and the Crested.
The Horned Grebe is abundant during autumn and winter on the large rivers
or inlets of the Southern States, but rare along the coasts of the Middle and
Eastern Districts. On the rivers about Charleston in South Carolina it is seen
at those seasons in considerable numbers, although not in larger flocks than
from four to seven individuals. The same is observable from that place to the
mouths of the Mississippi. It is particularly fond of those streams of which
the borders are overgrown by rank sedges and other plants, and are subject to
the influx of the tide. In such places they enjoy greater security while
searching for their food than in ponds, to which, however, they for the most
part retire at the approach of the pairing season, which commences early in
February. At that time one might be apt to think that these birds could
scarcely fly, as they are then rarely seen on wing; but when they are pursued,
and there happens to be a breeze, they rise from the water with considerable
ease, and fly to a distance of several hundred yards. In December and January I
have never procured any having the least remains of their summer head-dress; but
by the 10th of March, when they were on their journey towards the north, the
long feathers of the head were apparent. These tufts seem to attain their full
development in the course of a fortnight or three weeks, the old birds becoming
plumed sooner than the young, some of which leave the country in their winter
On the ground, this species is not better off than the Dobchick, it being
obliged to stand nearly erect, the hind part of the body resting, and the tarsi
and toes extended laterally. They dive with great celerity, and when once
acquainted with the effects of the gun, are not easily shot. A report is at
times sufficient to make the old birds dive at once, although they may be quite
beyond the reach of a shot. The young birds are more easily procured at their
first appearance; but the most efficient method of obtaining them is to employ
fishing nets, in the meshes of which they become entangled.
Excepting a species of Hawk nearly allied to Circus cyaneus, I know of no
other bird that has the eye of such colour, the iris being externally of a vivid
red, with an inner circle of white, which gives it a very singular appearance.
On attentively examining the eyes of our Divers and Grebes, I have not found any
with similar eyes. The Horned Grebe does not seem to see better than any other
species, nor does it appear to be more diurnal than the rest, nor are the
objects on which it feeds more minute, for I have found as small seeds in the
stomach of the large Grebe as in that of the present species. The reason of
this strange colouring of the iris, therefore, I am unable to conjecture.
Although the greater number of these birds go far northward to breed, some
remain within the limits of the United States during the whole year, rearing
their young on the borders of ponds, particularly in the northern parts of the
State of Ohio, in the vicinity of Lake Erie. Two nests which I found were
placed at a distance of about four yards from the water's edge, on the top of
broken down tussocks of rank weeds. The materials of which they were composed
were of the same nature, and rudely interwoven to a height of upwards of seven
inches. They were rather more than a foot in diameter at the base, the cavity
only four inches across, shallow, but more neatly finished with finer plants, of
which a quantity lay on the borders, and was probably used by the bird to cover
the eggs when about to leave them. There were five eggs in one nest, seven in
the other; all contained chicks (on the 29th of July); they measured one inch
and three-quarters in length, by one inch and two and a half eighths; their
shell was smooth, and of a uniform yellowish cream colour, without spots or
marks of any kind. The nests were not more than fifty yards apart, on the
south-western side of the pond. I am thus particular because of the near
relation of this bird to the Podiceps auritus of LATHAM, with which it may be
confounded by a not over-careful observer, as may the eggs too, those of the
latter species being precisely of the same length, but fully an eighth of an
inch narrower, which of course gives them a more elongated appearance. I have
observed the same differences in the eggs of these two species in Europe. I
could not ascertain if both the parent birds incubate; but as I saw two pairs on
the pond, I am inclined to think that they do. The nests were not fastened to
the weeds around them, nor do I conceive it probable that they could be floated,
as various writers assert they are at times.
I have not seen the young of this species when small; but from the
knowledge I have of those of other Grebes, I feel pretty certain that the
notions entertained of their being carried either on the back or under the wings
of their parents in cases of danger must be erroneous, as Grebes in all such
cases dive or fly at once, when it would be impossible for the old and young to
keep thus attached to each other.
I have observed in the stomachs of almost all that I have examined, a
quantity of hair-like substances rolled together like the pellets of Owls, but
have not ascertained whether or not these masses are disgorged. They certainly
cannot pass through the intestines. But unless birds of this kind are kept in
an aviary and watched, this matter must remain unknown. The food of this
species, while on salt-water, is composed of shrimps, small fishes, and minute
crustacea. While on fresh-water, they procure insects, leeches, small frogs,
tadpoles, and aquatic lizards; they also pick up the seeds of grasses, and I
have found as many in the stomach of an individual as would fill the shell of
one of its eggs. Their flight is performed by regular short flappings, executed
with great quickness.
I have represented an adult male in full spring plumage, and a young bird
shot in December. The males are rather larger than the females, which are
similar in colour, but rarely have the head so well feathered during the
PODICEPS CORNUTUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 417.
PODICEPS CORNUTUS, Horned Grebe, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 411.
HORNED GREBE, or DOBCHICK, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 254.
HORNED GREBE, Podiceps cornutus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 429;vol. v. p. 623.
Male, 14 3/4, 25 1/2.
Very common during autumn on the Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, and all their
tributaries, as well as in all the Atlantic Districts, to Texas. Breeds from
the Great Lakes to the Fur Countries. Migratory.
Adult Male in spring.
Bill shorter than the head, straight, acute, rather slender. Upper
mandible with the dorsal line straight for one-half of its length, towards the
end declinate and slightly convex, the ridge convex, the sides sloping, the
edges sharp and inflected, the tip acute. Nasal groove broad, extending to
beyond the middle of the mandible; nostrils sub-basal, linear-elliptical,
pervious. Lower mandible with the angle long and very narrow, the dorsal line
short, ascending, straight, the sides erect, slightly convex, the edges sharp,
inflected, the tip narrow, acute.
Head of moderate size, oblong, compressed. Neck rather long and slender.
Body depressed. Feet large, short, placed far behind; tibia feathered to the
joint; tarsus short, extremely compressed, anteriorly with a narrow scutellate
ridge, laterally with numerous broad scutella, posteriorly with a narrow ridge
having a double row of small prominent scales. Hind toe very small, with an
inferior small membrane; fore toes long, the outer modest, scutellate above,
united at the base by short webs, externally margined, internally with broad
rounded expansions, which are marked with parallel oblique lines, and crenate on
the edges. Claws flattened, that of the middle toe broadest, with an extremely
thin, broad terminal edge.
Plumage of the head and neck very soft and downy, of the breast and sides
silky and highly glossed, of the abdomen downy, of the upper parts imbricated,
but with loose edges. Wings small; primaries much curved, the first longest,
the second almost equal. Tail, a small tuft of loose feathers. On the head, at
this season, is a tuft of soft feathers on each side behind the eye, and a
larger on each side of the upper part of the neck.
Bill bluish-black, its tip yellow. Short loral space bright carmine, as is
the iris, its inner margin white; edges of eyelids greyish-blue. Feet dusky
externally, internally and on the anterior and posterior ridges of the tarsus
dull yellow; claws dusky. Forehead greyish-brown; upper parts of the head
bluish-black, as are the sides, fore neck anteriorly, and the elongated ruff
feathers; a broad band over the eyes, and the elongated tufts behind them
yellowish-brown. Fore neck brownish-red; lower parts white, the sides
reddish-brown; abdomen dull grey. The upper parts are brownish-black, the
feathers edged with greyish, the middle secondary quills white.
Length to end of tail 14 3/4, to end of claws 19; extent of wings 25 1/2;
wing from flexure 5 3/4; bill along the back 11/12, along the edge of lower
mandible 1 1/4; tarsus 1 1/4; outer toe 1 10/12, its claw 3/12. Weight 14 oz.
Young Female in winter.
The feathers of the hind head are a little elongated, but at this age there
are no tufts on the head. In other respects the plumage is as in the adult
male. The bill is bluish-grey, as is the bare loral space; the eye bright
carmine, the iris with an inner white edge; the feet bluish-grey. The upper
part of the head, and the hind neck, are greyish-black, as are the upper parts
in general. The feathers of the back edged with light grey. The throat, the
sides of the head, a broad patch on each side of the neck nearly meeting behind,
and the breast white; the sides and downy feathers of the abdomen brownish-grey.
Some of the secondaries are white, as in the adult male.
Male. The mouth as in the last species, 4 1/2 twelfths wide; the tongue 11
twelfths long, and similar to that of the Red-necked Grebe. OEsophagus 7 inches
in length, along the neck only 4 twelfths broad; the proventriculus excessively
large, ovate, 10 twelfths in breadth. The stomach is an enormous sac, 2 inches
long, 1 1/2 broad, a little compressed, of the same structure as in the last
species; its tendons 4 twelfths in breadth. There is a small flattened pyloric
lobe. The contents of the stomach are feathers, and bones of fishes. There is
in this species a very distinct, thick, soft, bright red, longitudinally rugous
epithelium. The proventricular glands are of great size, the largest 3 twelfths
long, 1 twelfth in breadth; they form a belt 1 1/4 inches in breadth. The lobes
of the liver are very large, the left 2 inches 4 twelfths long, the right 2
inches; the gall-bladder oblong. The intestine forming 12 curves; its length is
49 inches, its breadth at the upper part 5 twelfths, diminishing to 3 twelfths;
the coeca 2 inches long; their greatest width 2 twelfths, their distance from
the extremity 1 inch 9 twelfths. Cloaca globular, about 7 twelfths in width.
The trachea is 6 1/4 inches long, much flattened in its whole length,
excepting half an inch at the lower part; for half its length it is 2 twelfths
in breadth, then enlarges to 3 twelfths, and finally diminishes to 1 1/2
twelfths. The rings are 184, firm. The bronchi are slender, with the rings
complete, ossified, 12 in number: the remaining part being membranous. The
muscles as in the last.
The jugular veins are not enlarged in this species.